Another early start and a generous breakfast see us ready for our journey to the hill town of Nazareth. Some of our route follows the road we travelled to Cana yesterday.
En route Usama tells us about the Druze community which has settlements in the area. We hear about the difficulties facing non Jewish people wishing to own property in the cities and how to tell the difference between a Palestinian house and that of a Jewish person. Palestinians tend to extend houses upwards as their families grow, so it is very much a family unit. Shockingly the water supply to Palestinians is cut off for 5 out of seven days, so their houses can also be easily identified by the black water tanks on the roof, used to conserve water.
As we approach Nazareth, the road becomes busier and we start climbing in to the hills. We halt briefly in the centre of the town to disembark from the coach and weave our way through street stalls up the hill to the Church of the Annunciation.
The construction of the basilica was finished in 1969 and is now the largest Christian Church in the country. The building is stunning to look at with a modern twist to its design. The external surrounding walls give it a fortified effect. Stone carvings on the wall depict the Evangelists, each with the tools of their trade. Flowers, birds, fish and flames of fire are cut into the stonework, along with snippets from the bible in Latin. A massive door is carved with images portraying the life of Jesus, within the porch a fine mosaic ceiling has been laboriously placed. I am amazed by the attention to detail displayed in even the smallest areas. We move round to the side of the church and enter by a small door - a Holy Door celebrating the Year of Mercy.
Within the Basilica the white stone walls gleam in the sunlight pouring through the stained glass windows. In front of us, a lower area is lit by light shining through a circle in the ceiling from the Upper Basilica. Beyond again, is a cave deemed to be the home of the Virgin Mary when she was visited by the Angel Gabriel.
On the front of the small altar within the cave the words 'VERBUM CARO HIC FACTUM EST' are inscribed. The inclusion of the word 'Hic' - 'here' - has a big impact on me - 'The Word was made flesh here'. It was here that Mary said her 'Yes' to God; without her absolute trust in God we would not have been redeemed.....
We move to the upper Basilica and are amazed by the rich variety of Mosaics upon the walls. Many countries have created an image of the Madonna and Child, each depicted in the unique style of that country. Particularly striking is the Madonna and Child from Japan with its elements of gold. The English mosaic is partially obscured by a pillar and is within the sanctuary area, so is difficult to see. The style seems to be quite medieval. My picture is blurred, sadly. The roof and pillars within the upper basilica are stunning too. The effect achieved is that of pillars, beams and arcs of wood with nails inlaid. The marble floor also has an unusual random design - an architecturally stunning building.
I drag myself away from the interior into the sun filled courtyard outside, where the group is assembling to go in to St Joseph's Church.
St Joseph's Church is built on top of the remains of a Crusader church, which in turn was built on the remains of a Byzantine church. Tradition has it that this is the location of St Joseph's workshop and there is archaeological evidence for dwellings here, dating back to Roman times. The crypt to the church reveals evidence of ancient silos and a rock basin which may have been used as a baptistery. More archaeological excavations are to be seen outside the church revealing the stonework of ancient houses and caves.
We leave the area and make our way through the market to what was a local synagogue, now maintained by the Greek Orthodox. This small synagogue has been erected over the remains of earlier synagogues dating back to the time of Jesus. The synagogue of that time would have been a familiar place to which Jesus and his family would have come to pray; where he would have first preached to the people of his home town and been rejected. The building has a boat shaped stone roof, reminding me of the Gallarus Oratory in Dingle, though on a much bigger scale. Light streams from a side alcove. We listen to the Gospel reading and pray the Our Father.
Afterwards we walk to the Marie de Nazareth Centre. The centre is run by the Chemin Neuf Community, a 'Roman Catholic Community with an Ecumenical Vocation'. The centre was opened relatively recently in 2010. Its aim is to develop a deeper understanding of the role Mary played in our redemption. When the centre was built, archaeological discoveries revealed the remains of an ancient house dating back to the 1st century AD. Artefacts found link the inhabitants of the house to the Temple in Jerusalem, which suggest a link to Mary - tradition tells of her parents taking her to Jerusalem where she was dedicated to the service of God.
I consider how Jesus could have played on these stones with his friends, learnt the history of his people and his religion at the knees of his mother, Mary, and discovered the skills of carpentry from his adoptive father, Joseph
Moving on, we enter the auditorium for a light and sound show telling a condensed version of man's creation, the fall, the promise of salvation and how this promise is realised through Mary's acceptance of God's will and the subsequent birth, passion, death and resurrection of her son, Jesus.
I sit in the dark, my ears filled with the sound of the music and words of the story as it unfolds. My eyes fill with the images before me, wrapping around me, at times leaping forth from the screen with 3D effect. I am filled with joy as the story of the creation and the wonders God has given to us are revealed. I am amazed at Mary's willing acceptance of God's will. As the story progresses into the life of Jesus and his teachings there is a growing impending sense of the inevitable.
The depicted passion of Christ fills me with tears, not only because of the sufferings Jesus went through, but at the thought of how Mary, his mother, must have felt. Knowing how I feel when my own children are suffering in any way, the thought of Mary having to watch her only son being tortured and killed..............
Words from the film leap out at me:
'His love goes far beyond hatred.'
'The victory of Christ on the cross is the absolute victory of love over all hatred.'
'This is the place of abundant love.'
Mary's faith and hope in her son are all that remain after his harrowing death on the cross, her absolute trust in God justified by Jesus's resurrection on the third day.
The film moves on to the resurrection and the sending out of the apostles into the whole world to spread the good news. I am filled with a renewed sense of mission and understanding that this message is as valid for each of us today just as it was at that time. We have an imperative to bring the good news to those we meet on our daily journey through life.
As we leave the auditorium, I see by the handkerchiefs and surreptitious wiping of eyes, that many of us have been similarly affected by the content of the presentation.
Walking into the bright sunshine, we make our way to the Chapel of Unity, a sun-filled space decorated with a modern take on Byzantine artwork. The chapel is peaceful, we listen to the words of our hostess and a reading, then some remain to explore the room more fully, whilst others go on to the roof top terrace to view the town of Nazareth. A simple but tasty lunch of pizza and salad is served in a stone vaulted restaurant on the ground floor. After which we have time to explore the terrace gardens and rooftops or the surrounding areas. I make my way back to the Basilica with Sue to look at the mosaics which were displayed in the exterior courtyard of the complex.
Later, a crocodile line trails through the streets of Nazareth as we head back to our coach.
We wind down the hillside from Nazareth. Once again I am surprised at the fertility of the area. I had always imagined desert scrubland, but here are large fertile fields filled with a variety of crops. We are told that the plain to our left is the area considered to be the plain of Armageddon, where the last battle at the end of time will take place and, to this end, underground preparations have been made to support armies - a chilling, but slightly bizarre, thought.
As we journey on we pass the village of Naim, where Jesus raised the widow's son from the dead. Usama explains that in those days, a widow would lose her home and belongings if she had no male family member to support her. Jesus understood her plight and so raised her son back to life.
In the near distance a single conical hill raises from the plain - Mount Tabor.
We turn off the main highway and wend our way through small villages to a coach parking area. Here we disembark and cross over to several minibuses which we climb into to journey on up the mountain. The driver sets a fast pace as we weave our way up the mountain in low gear, the engine straining to maintain its speed. The road climbs and bends in a series of switchbacks as we move upwards. The drop to the side is precipitous at times, the road is not particularly wide in places and I hope we don't meet any vehicles coming down at the same breakneck speed. We eventually arrive at a stony parking place where we are let off the bus.
Passing through a set of gates, we approach the Church of the Transfiguration. The 20th century building was built on earlier Crusader and Byzantine remains, some of which can still be seen in the grounds of the church. Inside the church, the building is split into two areas. The upper level contains the main altar and a fine mosaic of the Transfiguration. The lower level, more like a chapel, has a beautiful stained glass window with peacocks. It is here that we celebrate mass together.
The reading of the Transfiguration takes on new meaning as we consider our surroundings and our journey here. I always find being on a mountain top makes me more aware of the Divine, this place more so than some others. I can see why the apostles were so keen to build tents and stay here with Jesus, exultant after their climb, awed by their vision, anxious to extend their experience, not yet ready to go on to Jerusalem.
A slightly mundane thought crosses my mind that the apostles and Jesus are to be admired, too, for having tackled the steep sides of this mountain to gain the summit!
We sing, '....We stand on Holy Ground. Be still for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One, is here....' I am filled with a deep sense of peace.....
After mass we explore the church and its surroundings, revelling in the warm sunshine as we leave the cool interior. We make our way on to the terrace to the side of the church and gaze out across the valley, the vastness of the landscape unfolds below us. This view, without the roads and modern buildings, is very similar to that which Jesus, Peter, James and John saw that day, 2000 years ago.
We make our way back to the minibuses for our rapid transit back down the mountain, closely encountering other minibuses, a couple of cars, an army vehicle and a cyclist en route. All safely back on the coach, we make our way back to Tiberias for the final night in this beautiful, wondrous area.
In the evening, we gather together to talk and pray about our journey so far. For many the most unforgettable experience has been the celebration of mass on the Sea of Galilee. We have been touched in some profound way. Our words falter as we try to convey the impact our pilgrimage has had on us in just a few days. After our hour of prayer,Damian distributes cards he has brought with him into which we write messages of support for our fellow Christians in their struggle to survive in this country.
Later, I try to catch up on my thoughts so far, for publication on this site. I realise that a day to day blog is unlikely to happen - I'm still writing about the previous day in Galilee! I decide to unpublish the page, determined to catch up with events once I'm back home.
The thoughts and impressions stated are those of the writer only and may not reflect the feelings and opinions of others in the group.